Friday, July 25, 2008

Animation Show 4: Mixed bag

Animation Show 4 (2008)
Three stars (out of five). Rating: Unrated, but with R-level profanity and adult situations
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.25.08

I greatly admire the compact precision of succinct works, whether one-act plays, short stories, anthology TV shows or the Academy Awards' annual live action and animated short subjects.

Indeed, I'll willingly suffer through a dozen mediocre (or worse) stories in an average published collection, in the hope of finding a noteworthy nugget or two.
The two comically grave undertakes of "This Way Up" begin their newest
assignment with no expectation that the simple task of conveying a coffin to
its burial site will become so difficult.

Any creative typist can churn out 814 undisciplined pages and call it a novel, but true talent is required to produce a memorable short story, where the very nature of the form demands that not a single word be wasted.

Similarly, a short film hasn't the luxury of the time required for backstory or extensive character exposition; all necessary information must be delivered economically and (one hopes) cleverly. Factor in the myriad options available to modern animators — traditional cel drawings, claymation, stop-motion or CGI — and the medium itself, in gifted hands, can help the storyline have an even greater impact.

Small wonder, then, that I embrace the good things that frequently come in the small packages of touring cartoon road shows, the newest of which — The Animation Show 4 — opens today at Sacramento's Crest Theater.

Like many such packages, it's a mixed bag. And, further armed with the knowledge that this annual collection is assembled by executive producer/curator Mike Judge, the perhaps notorious creator of "Beavis and Butthead," one can expect a certain, ah, negligence with respect to artistic prowess.

To put it bluntly, Judge will tolerate garbage animation in the pursuit of something he finds otherwise clever or acidly amusing. This will come as no surprise to those who couldn't get beyond the deliberately junky visual style of Beavis and Butthead, no matter how pointed the political and social commentary.

I cheerfully admit to being old-school, and therefore utterly unforgiving of "art" that my 4-year-old nephew could have done, and probably better. As a result, I find much of The Animation Show 4 to be ugly, sloppy, lazy and utterly without merit.

A 50-second short concerning the unusual appetite of Corky Quakenbush's "Yompi, the Crotch-Biting Sloup" — the title tells it all — might be worth a single grimaced giggle, but three rounds of this claymation oddity, spaced throughout the program, seems needlessly excessive.

Similarly, the so-limited-that-nothing-moves "animation" of Steve Dildarian's "Angry Unpaid Hooker" is wholly superfluous to the verbal comedy sketch that fuels this six-minute piece (one of the program's longest). It might have been funny if presented as a live stand-up routine, but learning that this waste of time took the best animated short award at the 2006 HBO Comedy Arts Festival — and is being developed into a TV series (!) — merely confirms the declining appreciation, in certain quarters, for animation that looks like animation.

The same can be said of a few other pieces. The three segments of Dave Carter's "Psychotown" also are little more than minimalist images that provide a visual for two-man stand-up routines, but at least Carter's intriguing style of cut-out stop-motion is more pleasing to the eye. And, in fairness, his short comedy sketches are vastly funnier than Dildarian's "Angry Unpaid Hooker."

On the other hand, you won't know what to make of several examples of Satoshi Tomoila's "Usavich Episodes," which are just plain weird. Grant Orchard's "Love Sport Paint Balling" is similarly bewildering, its minimalist CGI hardly up to the challenge of the social statement being made.

So far, though, I've concentrated solely on the negative, and that's unfair. As with most programs of this nature, genuine diamonds can be found amid the coal, even if patience is required to extract them. I'm inclined to accuse Judge of deliberate cruelty, because the three strongest pieces are among the very last, which makes it necessary to wade through a lot of swill to reach them.

Ah, but you won't be disappointed.

"This Way Up," literally the final short in the package, comes from the British computer animation team of Smith and Foulkes; their resume includes a quite memorable "film within a film" sequence from Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events.

"This Way Up" is the hilariously macabre saga of two undertakers — one properly grim, the other something of a cut-up — who can't seem to get this particular coffin planted. Even at seven minutes, the piece has the split-second timing of a classic Chuck Jones Roadrunner cartoon, and much of the same momentum.

And when you think these two dour gentlemen finally have succeeded, a surprise third act plunges them into the even greater peril of the underworld. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

"This Way Up" is preceeded immediately by Adam Pesapane's "Western Spaghetti," a lightning-quick (only 90 seconds) example of his fascinating fondness for stop-motion animation with everyday objects used in unexpected ways. This piece is a simple (!) depiction of preparing a dish of spaghetti on a stove whose flames are candy corn, and using "vegetables" such as a chunk of Rubik's Cube or a dollar bill "leaf" from a "spice plant."

It's enormously ingenious, but over so quickly that you'll want to sit through the entire program just to see it again.
The energetic canine hero of "Hot Dog," desperately wanting to become a
fire-fighting pooch, grabs a hose and tries to extinguish a small blaze that
threatens to get worse.

Bill Plympton is perhaps the only "name" animator likely to be recognized here, and he contributes one of his typically demented adventures in colored pencil/crayon-style cel animation, in this case "Hot Dog," the frantic saga of a veteran Plympton pooch who desperately wants to become a firehouse dog.

The results are both hilarious and touching, with no scene better than the laugh-out-loud moment when our courageous canine, trying to extinguish a nascent fire by piddling on it — and quickly lapping the contents from a nearby gutter, in order to, ah, increase the strength of his flow — suddenly hits a patch of water laced with gasoline, and then tries to place this new taste with a series of doggy memories, all pictured in balloons above his inquisitive head.

Earthy and crass? You bet ... but also quite funny.

Stephan Mueller's "Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Hazen and Mr. Horlocker" is similarly vulgar, but also unexpectedly amusing. Mueller begins what appears to be a simple tale of an average middle-age man who, trying to read a newspaper in peace, eventually calls a policeman to deal with the overly loud music coming from a neighboring apartment. The responding cop then becomes the focus, as he confronts an increasingly bizarre series of events while knocking at each apartment door.

Mueller then backs up the action and replays these events, from a different point of view that reveals what's really taking place in each apartment. Sheer momentum carries the results more than artistic skill, but the result is pretty entertaining.

"Burning Safari," "Voodoo" and "Cocotte Minute," all from France, are fast-paced gag cartoons: visually amusing and good for a giggle, if probably equally quick to fade from memory.

"Blind Spot," on the other hand — also from a team of French animators — is a breathtaking piece that takes place late at night in a convenience store, as an old woman struggles to purchase an umbrella while being wholly unaware of the robbery taking place elsewhere, as a quavering stick-up man panics and wreaks all sorts of havoc. The significance of the film's title only becomes clear in the final few seconds: a brilliant climax to a beautifully designed and paced little film.

His artistic lapses notwithstanding, Judge is to be commended for searching far and wide for the shorts contained here; these films come from England, France, Japan, Germany, Australia, the United States, Switzerland and Canada. And there's certainly no shortage of inventive technique on display, even if sometimes — as with France's "Prof. Nieto Episode One" or "Raymond" — it's in service of very little.

Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences threatens to "demote" the short subjects categories from the annual Oscar TV broadcast; thus far, this threat hasn't come to pass. I hope it never does; tomorrow's filmmakers often begin with breathtaking short subjects — Tim Burton and John Lasseter come to mind — and such fledgling genius needs to be both nurtured and accorded the honor of public acclaim.

To that end, I'll cheerfully endure the likes of "Angry Unpaid Hooker" and "Yompi, the Crotch-Biting Sloup" in order to discover the delights of "This Way Up" and "Western Spaghetti."

And so should you.

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